Jaw-dropping, tear-jerking musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s cult graphic novel
If there are two things the Americans make us looks like absolute amateurs at, it’s dementedly self-destructive domestic politics and musical theatre.
I’m happy to report that Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s ‘Fun Home’ falls into the latter category, being a musical adaptation of Alison ‘Yes, the Bechdel Test is named after her’ Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. And it is astonishing.
One of the great things about Sam Gold’s tight, no interval production – a straight restaging of his hit New York production – is how it sneaks up on you. At first, it’s pretty spare: Kaisa Hammarlund’s older Alison strides out uncertainly on to David Zinn’s minimal set and begins to narrate what seems like a fairly cosy coming-of-age story. It’s about her younger self (who we meet in child and university-age incarnations) and her father Bruce (Zubin Varla), a seemingly loveable eccentric who teaches English, runs a funeral home (aka the ‘Fun Home’) and restores old houses. Garnished with pretty musical moments that are more like enhanced bits of dialogue than actual songs, it’s a portrait of a sweetly kooky idyll.
But the suspicion that there is more to it than this is realised. It is not a shock to discover that Hammarlund’s bespectacled, bequiffed Alison is gay; more of a surprise is her early revelation that her dad was also gay, and that he would end his life because of it.
Told in non-linear fashion, much about ‘Fun Home’ is joyously goofy. There is a wondrously ridiculous scene in which small Alison (played superbly by Brooke Haynes on press night) and her two pint-sized brothers devise a Motown-style number as a plug for the funeral home, in the closest the show gets to an actual full-blown musical number. Later Eleanor Kane’s gawky college student Alison is absolutely delightful as she ums and ahs about visiting her university’s gay society, where she meets hypercool future girlfriend Joan (Cherrelle Skeete).
We know from early on the hard, gravitic point of reality that the swirling timelines will converge upon. Yet the brilliance of ‘Fun Home’ is how it complicates the journey.
This is, for the most part, a show about Alison and Bruce. And Varla – not what you’d naturally call a musical theatre guy – is superb. Wigged up, he has a slightly loopy all-American charm and a raw, throaty voice. And yet there’s something else there, more troubling – a desperate unease in his own life, a sense that his busy schedule and oddball interests are really just a means of distracting him from his own unhappiness.
But Alison knows that it shouldn’t just be about the pair of them. Ironically, ‘Fun Home’ comes perilously close to failing the Bechdel Test (which Bechdel herself part-credited to her friend Liz Wallace and Virginia Woolf). But in perhaps the most startling scene, Jenna Russell – hitherto tight-lipped and ignored as Alison’s mother Helen – suddenly erupts into a molten song of regret that points to the way her daughter’s relationship with Bruce had largely left her shut out, unconsidered. Russell is a first-rate musical theatre actor, and initially it almost seems perverse how little singing she actually does. But when she’s suddenly allowed to let rip it’s the greatest special effect; the sudden, effortless sound of her voice like some unimaginably exotic fragrance uncorked from a hitherto unconsidered bottle.
Finally, then, the sequence that we know it’s been building up to, a family visit where Alison brings Joan home for the first time and her dad starts to visibly fray. A horrible question rears itself - does the sight of his daughter’s liberation exacerbate his misery and push him to doing what he does? Bechdel refuses to give in to guilt – but she is haunted by the question.
It is a remarkable story, with remarkable performers, that’s even more remarkable for its structure – spinning and swirling and ducking and diving in kaleidoscopic fragments, with the ‘songs’ often just beautifully elevated snatches of dialogue. It bustles with all the energy and joy of nostalgia and discovery of life, almost ebulliently whirling to its final point of tragedy.
Saying it’s the best new musical we’ve seen since ‘Hamilton’ is a bit meaningless when ‘Hamilton’ only opened six months ago – but the same would apply if it was six years ago. And if it doesn’t storm the West End in fairly short order then the world is even more screwed than we thought it was.